Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Magic Bus' era finally ends

Story of VW van takes wacky turns

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It is perhaps fitting the introduction to the definitive book on Volkswagen's Transporter reads like a blissed-out hippie's stream of consciousness.

The Transporter (also known as the Magic Bus, Microbus, Camper, Kombi, Westfalia -- its official Volkswagen Type 2 designation -- and the sobriquet Splitty) is the ultimate counterculture vehicle, having transported hippies to communes, protesters to peace marches, music lovers to Woodstock, drugs across borders and penniless folk-rock bands to their gigs.

Indeed, Mike Harding's book, The VW Camper Van: A Biography, starts with a long meander through an endless number of bands, all seemingly plying their trade in some remote backwater of England. Eventually, Harding, a folk-music DJ and banjo player, gets to the interesting bits, namely how the Volkswagen Type 2 -- sign of freedom and rebellion for generations -- came into being.

It's a bit of a twisted plot, full of incongruities and happenstances that, were it not set in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War in war-torn Germany, you'd swear had the markings of a reefer-fuelled plot of intrigue and derring-do.

According to Harding, it turns out the only reason we have the Transporter (or its predecessor, the Volkswagen Type 1, which we know as the Beetle) is because one somewhat-antsy British major, Ivan Hirst, decided to bend his orders to "just sit" on the KdF-Stadt factory in the town of Fallersleben, later renamed Wolfsburg. Hirst decided to revitalize the bombed-out VW factory, which had a carcass of a B-17 Flying Fortress occupying the ruins of a major potion of the plant, mainly because he was too bored just to play security guard.

On taking control of the factory, Hirst discovered a few wilting Beetles, left unattended since the beginning of hostilities, gathering dust in a corner of the rambling plant. Piecing together one good model from the remnants and painting it military green, he drove one of the few pre-war Beetles to his BAOR (British Army of the Rhine) headquarters, where the commander promptly ordered 20,000.

To produce them, Hirst had to rescue some "liberated" tools and dies from marauding Russians, which he did with whisky and cigarettes, and save the plant from a dynamite-demented brigadier whose idea of a good time was blowing up German factories.

With the tools, dies and presses back in action, Hirst had the first 10,000 Beetles produced before the end of 1946, most of them, according to the author, smelling like fish because of the glue the factory was forced to use to affix the headliner.

The next character in this Teutonic commedia dell'arte is Bernardus "Ben" Pon, who had been Holland's Volkswagen importer before the war and who, according to Harding, had a habit of showing up at the Wolfsburg plant in a purloined Dutch army general's garb claiming "that without this majestic entry, nobody would have taken any notice of him."

And nobody would have, had it not been for the serendipity that Hirst was looking to build some form of transporter vehicle, mainly to ferry parts around the factory, and Pon saw a future in a small commercial delivery vehicle.

On one sheet of a small loose-leaf notebook, the Dutch designer sketched the "bread loaf" with wheels that became the VW panel van -- the notebook and sketch still exist. So, one of the most successful vehicles ever produced -- more than 10 million variants in 63 years -- owes its origin to one childlike pencil drawing by a somewhat eccentric auto dealer who later got rich exporting Beetles to the U.S.

Volkswagen's Type 2, now in its fifth generation, has been produced all over the world, most notably in Mexico, where production stopped in 1995, and Brazil, where the Kombi (short for Kombinationsfahrzeug or "cargo-passenger van") is still produced at VW's Sao Paulo plant.

But that glorious 63-year history will come to an end on Dec. 31 when new Brazilian regulations calling for airbags and anti-lock brakes, which Volkswagen says it cannot engineer into the current platform, come into effect.

Similar safety regs caused German production to halt in 1979. Volkswagen did show a camper-van concept at the 2011 Geneva auto show, but there has been no further hint at production. So it looks like the 600 Brazilian commemorative special editions will be the last Magic Buses ever produced.

-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2013

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2013 F8

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